Gripping thriller explores crime in the new Russia

November 08, 1992|By Nancy Pate | Nancy Pate,Orlando Sentinel


Martin Cruz Smith.

Random House.

418 pages. $23.

Martin Cruz Smith's gripping new thriller, "Red Square," begins with a bang. Homicide detective Arkady Renko, back in the good graces of the Moscow prosecutor's office after being declared politically unreliable in Gorky Park and being exiled to the Bering Sea in Polar Star, follows a car to a thriving black market on a construction site outside Moscow.

The car is an Audi belonging to Rudy Rosen, one of Arkady's informants and a banker to the black marketeers. A few minutes later, Arkady is in the Audi's front seat, pretending to trade rubles for dollars. And a moment after that, as Arkady walks back to his own car, the Audi explodes into flames.

Rudy is dead, all his financial records destroyed, his deutsche marks and dollars starring the dark sky, "all lined with worms of burning gold."

Welcome to Moscow, summer 1991. The Communist Party has crumbled, but Arkady keeps tripping over bureaucratic red tape as he investigates Rudy's death and its ties to the Russian mafia, who are keeping the economy going with their black-market car parts and VCRs, their protection rackets and prostitutes. "Center stage, a dramatic battlefield of warlords and entrepreneurs; behind it, as still as a painted backdrop, 8 million people standing in line."

Arkady -- introduced to readers a decade ago in "Gorky Park" -- can't quite get used to this new Moscow, where people will steal the food out of a dead man's refrigerator. "Moscow looked like a cannibalized city, without food, gas or basic goods. Arkady felt like a cannibalized man, as if he might be missing a rib, lung, some part of his heart."

The murder inquiry temporarily keeps the void at bay. Was Rudy caught in the cross-fire between rival underworld gangs? Who is the woman who was in the Audi with Rudy before he died? What is the meaning of a doctored videotape of a German beer garden? And why does someone keep faxing the same message to Rudy's apartment, "Where is Red Square?"

Such questions feed the twisting plot and keep Arkady on the trail. But although "Red Square" doesn't lack for drama or action, the novel's characters and atmosphere are what make it so satisfying. Chief among the characters, of course, is Arkady himself, stubbornly individualistic, occasionally sentimental but more often wryly pragmatic.

Most fascinating of all is Mr. Smith's detailed evocation of the new Moscow. Here's a factory whose interior has been gutted and turned into a golf course for Japanese tourists. Here's a kiosk next to the grave of a rock singer where fans can buy posters and cassettes. And here's the crowd massing outside ** the White House on the night of the coup.

"Arkady . . . skirted a barricade being assembled from construction timbers, mattresses, iron fences and benches. Its builders were men with attache cases and women with shopping bags who had come directly from offices or bakeries to the battle line. A girl in a raincoat scaled the makeshift palisade to tie a Russian tricolor to the highest plank . . . the sound of weapons fire resumed."

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